Gasol Pau-ers Lakers to Victory Over New JerseyPau Gasol scored 24 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and passed for four assists in his Lakers debut, a 105-90 road victory over the New Jersey Nets. Gasol fell just three points short of tying the franchise record for most points scored by a player in his first game with the team, a mark held by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He shot 10-15 from the field and tied Kobe Bryant with a game-high +20 plus/minus rating. Derek Fisher tied his season-high with 28 points, benefiting from all the defensive attention that Gasol and Bryant attracted. Mark Jackson, who called the game for the YES Network alongside Marv Albert, repeatedly stressed how big an upgrade Fisher is over last year's point guard, Smush Parker. Last season, when I declared that Parker was perhaps the worst starting point guard in the NBA and that he was bringing the whole team down, some people who don't understand basketball said that I was just making excuses for Bryant; now, with Parker a non-factor for the worst team in the NBA (the Miami Heat) and Fisher a solid contributor to an improved Lakers team, it is easy to see how correct I was about Parker's effect on the Lakers.
Lamar Odom, a talented player who is perfectly happy to be a third option (or even a fourth option when Andrew Bynum returns to health), attempted just four shots but drew a lot of fouls and finished with 14 points, 15 rebounds and five assists. He also delivered an inadvertent shot to Richard Jefferson's head that instantly caused his eye to swell up and required stitches and a huge bandage; Jefferson returned to the game but only had 12 points, well below his average. Vince Carter led the Nets with 27 points but he shot just 10-26 from the field, although his dunk over D.J. Mbenga was not just a facial but full fledged plastic surgery. Jason Kidd had 11 points, a game-high 10 assists and five rebounds.
Anyone who thinks that Bryant is a selfish player who is primarily interested in scoring should have watched this game in order to deprogram the faulty thinking about Bryant that has prevailed for far too long. Bryant scored a season-low six points--and he looked like he was absolutely the happiest man on the planet. Prior to the game, he told Ahmad Rashad that with the Gasol acquisition the Lakers were no longer going into a gun fight with "butter knives." Bryant is ecstatic, almost giddy, to play with Gasol and he was literally dancing around like a little kid during stoppages of play. Bryant had some opportunities to pad his scoring total at the end of the game but he eschewed all of them. At one point, while he dribbled at the top of the key he motioned Gasol over to run a screen and roll play. Despite his cold shooting night, the Nets naturally double-teamed Bryant, who fed Gasol for a jumper that put the Lakers up 97-86 with 1:31 left in the game. Bryant sat out the last 1:05 and the New Jersey crowd serenaded him with MVP chants; when you score six points and the road crowd is calling you the MVP then you know that you are really good.
Bryant shot 3-13 from the field but he led the Lakers with eight assists and two blocked shots, tied for the team lead with two steals and also had five rebounds. Midway through the first quarter he ran down Kidd and blocked his dunk attempt--with his left hand. Bryant suffered a dislocated pinkie finger on his right (shooting) hand at the 5:47 mark of the second quarter but only missed a little more than two minutes of playing time as Lakers' trainer Gary Vitti popped it back into place and taped the pinkie to the ring finger. Bryant spent most of the game accepting the double-team and then dishing to open teammates and several of his missed shots happened when the ball arrived back in his hands with the shot clock winding down. He vowed to not miss any games due to the finger injury, saying that old school players like Michael Jordan and Ron Harper would rag on him if he did; could that be a backhanded slap at LeBron James, who missed several games earlier this season with a similar injury?
No matter how poorly or infrequently Bryant shot, he drew a defensive crowd wherever he went on the court. We have seen a healthy Bryant put up 50 point games anyway against that kind of defensive coverage but he does not have to do that now; the same passes from Bryant that used to bounce off Kwame Brown's hands are now converted by Gasol into baskets, free throw attempts or passes to cutters for layups. Gasol capped off one postup situation with a Larry Bird-like no look flip over his head to a wide open Fisher, who seemed surprised to receive the ball but made the layup anyway.
After the game, Bryant was asked how good it feels to be able to win a game despite only scoring six points and he replied, grinning from ear to ear, "You have no idea. This just makes the game so much easier. We had some weapons before. Now we just added a huge one to the team." Later in the interview, he exclaimed, "There is a God."
It is important to remember that Gasol has yet to win a single playoff game in his career. He is an All-Star level player, not a franchise player--but pairing him with a franchise player like Bryant (and a good big man like Bynum) will bring out the best in both players because, as Bryant noted, defenses cannot double one of them without either leaving the other one wide open or providing spot up shots to Fisher.
Bryant was roundly criticized during the summer when he said that the Lakers needed to either upgrade the talent level on the roster or trade him away. People questioned his motives and said that he was a bad teammate. The reality is simply that he wants to win so badly that it literally pained him to take the court with "butter knives" and try to defeat teams armed with bazookas. The Lakers were not a good team last year and it took a superhuman performance by Bryant after the All-Star break just to earn a playoff berth. It is remarkable how much has changed since the Suns eliminated them from the playoffs:
1) Smush Parker was shown the exit.
2) Derek Fisher signed on as the starting point guard.
3) Andrew Bynum worked on his game and became a legit double-double player after previously being so out of condition that the Lakers could not even leave him on the court for extended minutes.
4) Several of the young bench players developed into solid contributors on a consistent basis (particularly Farmar, Vujacic and Turiaf).
5) The Lakers acquired a bona fide All-Star in Gasol without giving up anything of current value.
One victory against a mediocre Nets team is not enough to convince me that the Lakers are the favorites to win the Western Conference--but considering how dangerous the Lakers could be at times even when they consisted of little more than Bryant and four bystanders, it is obvious that this upgraded squad has the potential to do a lot of damage once the key players have an opportunity to jell as a unit. Maybe that will happen this season, maybe it will take an offseason and a full training camp to enable this team to reach its full potential but the days of Bryant trying to go big game hunting with butter knives are over--and that is not a pleasant thought for the other teams in the Western Conference.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:07 AM